Archives for January 2012

Billy is coming home

Marie-Louise Muir | 17:11 UK time, Tuesday, 31 January 2012

So Graham Reid the writer of the Billy plays confirmed with me on BBC Radio Ulster's "Arts Extra" programme that he has written a new Billy play, which will be premiered at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast this Autumn. It's 30 years, next month, since the first play was shown on BBC network. A play for today from BBC Northern Ireland,"Too Late to talk to Billy" aired at 9.25pm on BBC 1 on Tuesday the 6th February 1982. It was the first time people here got a chance to see themselves played back to themselves on screen. It was a significant moment for me as I was allowed to sit up late to watch it!

 I re-watched them a few years ago ahead of an event at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh which re-united Graham Reid, James Ellis, and Chris Parr the producer, among others on a panel discussion about the plays' importance. With tv drama becoming much more slick and cinematic in the last 30 years, audiences have a more sophisticated televisual language. But while there is a dated quality to some of the shots, with less cuts and pace than we expect now in tv editing, the passion of the writing and the energy of the central performances more than carry them.

To mark the 30th anniversary BBC Northern Ireland is going all out to celebrate the Billy legacy. The season begins on 5th of February  with a documentary talking to the writer, cast and crew about the making of the plays, followed by the first Billy play, and BBC Radio Ulster starts a new series with people's memories of the plays on Monday 6th February at 11.55am. 

Billy was Kenneth Branagh's first job, leaving RADA before the end of his course, and finding himself back in his hometown of Belfast. Branagh is keen to reprise the role which launched his career, as is everyone else associated with the new play. They are in the rare position of having all the original cast still alive.

But Reid is sanguine, aware that with Branagh's recent Oscar nomination and roles pouring in, will he have time to squeeze in a play in Belfast? 

I don't doubt that he will. He is passionate about the part, and I think he would crawl over hot coals to do it. Hopefully he won't have to do that! He has got the part!!






















Carthaginians Part Two

Marie-Louise Muir | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

Following on from my last blog about the Millennium Forum's new production of "Carthaginians" next month, I'm trying to work out if a workshop I took place in in the mid 1980s was the catalyst for the play. It must have been about 1985/1986. There was an ad in the Derry Journal, advertising a workshop called "How to make a Play" or "Making a play", can't remember exact name, but it was being facilitated by playwright Frank McGuinness and theatre director Joe Dowling. It was to take place in the old Foyle college school building on Lawrence Hill, which would become the Foyle Arts Centre and is now where the drama dept of the University of Ulster at Magee is housed. It's all a bit hazy now, but I do remember the other people on the course being very vocal about Bloody Sunday. The next thing is we're walking around the City Cemetery. McGuinness asked us to jot down whatever came into our heads. I had to ask him for a pen, and walked around gazing at headstones but if I'm honest, all I really remember is how freezing cold it was and wishing we were back indoors. 

About a year after that workshop, I was living in Dublin and saw that Frank McGuinness had a new play on at the Abbey. Carthaginians. Set in Derry. I booked my ticket and went along. I was struck by the subject matter, Bloody Sunday, set in the City Cemetery. I don't know if the idea of the play was already bubbling in his head or our workshop acted as a catalyst. I just wish I had kept that pen. 

By the way, if you know anyone who was on that course please let me know. I would love to do something on it for the radio.

Carthaginians 2012

Marie-Louise Muir | 10:38 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

Adrian Dunbar is directing a new production of "Carthaginians" by Frank McGuinness in Derry. It seems fitting as the play is set in Derry City Cemetery and deals with the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. When we spoke on Arts Extra this week, I asked him about the resonances of re-staging the play in 2012. It was premiered in 1988 and then the landscape for an inquiry, or even a Prime Minister's public apology, were years away. 


The characters in the play are sitting in Derry City Cemetery. For anyone who knows it, it's a vast graveyard, perched high on a hill, with panoramic views of the city. One of the best views in the city, pity say the Derry wags that the residents don't appreciate it!

It also catches the wind in a way that only a high positioned place can, chilling visitors to the bone.

The men and women in the play are waiting for the dead to rise, looking down on the Bogside below, where, on the 30th January 1972, 13 people were killed. These people are the survivors of that day and they want their story to be heard. It's 24 years since I first saw the play, when it premiered in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I remember being shocked at hearing Derry accents on a Dublin stage. But I remember the visceral power of the words, the anger, the pain, and the need for closure.

It's the 40th anniversary year of Bloody Sunday, and the play is being produced to mark this. But so much has changed since McGuinness wrote it. I'm fascinated to see it, to hear those words again, but it will be odd to hear them in light of David Cameron's apology on behalf of the government. Can a play lose its impact if history overtakes it? 


Carthaginians opens at the Millennium Forum in Derry next month.  

Jon Ronson rocks at the Out to Lunch Festival

Marie-Louise Muir | 22:42 UK time, Sunday, 15 January 2012

It's probably the closest I've ever got to a rock n roll gig, walking out onto the stage of the Black Box tonight to introduce journalist and writer Jon Ronson. It's a Sunday night in Belfast, in deepest, darkest January.It's cold outside, we could all be sitting at home watching the last episode of Sherlock but nearly 200 people are in the Black Box on Belfast's Hill Street to listen to a small, bespectacled writer. talk about psychopaths, staring at goats and staying in Robbie Williams' house in LA for a week to talk about alien abductions. This is literary rock n roll and it feels good. Jon Ronson is in great form. He's here as part of the Out to Lunch Festival and he's got a new book, The Psychopath Test, which is so popular especially in the US that his American publishers want him to write a new book as fast as possible. He's not so sure. He likes to ruminate and get under the skin of a topic. The tougher it is to get a hold of, the more he pursues it. In fact, he's as much Sherlock as Benedict Cumberbatch. He riffs a monologue/comedy routine for about 20 minutes, reading from the book but really giving the audience anecdote after anecdote. Since writing the book, he is now a trained "psychopath spotter". He took a 3 day course in a marquee in Wales, he says. He could now be called upon in a court of law.We all laugh, but we know he's serious.

He's drawn to extremes. Larger than life characters. As he's in Belfast, I ask him about the time he spent with the Rev Ian Paisley. It was 13 years ago, he says, for a television documentary in which he followed Paisley on a missionary trip to Africa. He hasn't followed him since, saying he hadn't seen Paisley in his more recent incarnation as one half of "The Chuckle Brothers" with Martin McGuinness.

There weren't many laughs for him when recently he was in Seattle, following Phoenix Jones, a real life superhero complete with cape who fights crime. He ended up in one of the most dangerous parts of the city facing a crack cocaine gang. While the superhero and his friends were wearing bullet proof vests, Ronson was just wearing a cardigan.

His journalism is a rare thing. At the edges of society, funny, irreverent, insightful and without a bullet proof vest. And Belfast came out for him tonight. A great booking from Sean Kelly and the team at the Out to Lunch Festival. A great gig. I left him signing books and chatting to fans. The queue stretched the length of the bar! He's probably still there, using his new found psychopath check list to suss out his readers.

Joint curatorial Derry team to work with Tate & Turner Prize 2013?

Marie-Louise Muir | 11:06 UK time, Friday, 13 January 2012

I've been following the still unfolding story of where the Turner Prize will go when it comes to Derry in 2013. The current offiicial position is that it will be housed in the former Ebrington Barracks. Just before Christmas, I spoke to Declan McGonagle, from the Culture Company, who said that the site would be ready in time. But just after Christmas, Eamon McCann, who is on the board of the Void Gallery in Derry, said to me on BBC Radio Ulster's "Arts Extra" that he thought the Void should house it. There's talk of the Void moving from its current site in the basement of the former shirt factory on Patrick Street, to a new, three story space in the city centre. The Void has a track record of working with Turner artists including Willie Doherty and Jeremy Deller. It has a successful art school, and last year was included in a list of the best smaller gallery spaces in Great Britain.

This week, I met the new directors of the Context Gallery based within the Playhouse. With Theo Sims returning to Canada in November last year to resume his work as a visual artist, the space for a curator was open. Filling it since December are two co-directors, Swedish born Johan Lundh and Irish/Canadian Aileen Burns. Both seemed fired up by the chance to work in Derry, honest about the fact that they didn't know much about here before applying, having worked in Berlin and New York, but now say that they want to bring the legacy of the Orchard Gallery back to the city. The Orchard Gallery, run by Declan McGonagle, was one of the most exciting spaces in Europe in the 1980's, all the major names in contemporary art showed there, and the gallery was shortlisted for the Turner prize , with McGonagle himself one of only two curators to be shortlisted for the prize in 1987. I ask Johan and Aileen were they aware of the prestige surrounding Turner? Yes, of course, that was part of their desire to come here, but they want to stay longer than 2013. They seem genuinely excited about their ambitions for the Context. For the moment though, they are caretaking Theo's programme, with their own kicking in in July.  

I liked their attitude. Likewise, Damien Duffy and Maolíosa Boyle, the curatorial team at the Void, have a similar determination. Setting up the Void Gallery over 5 years ago, they wanted to create a gallery that would rival any spaces in any metropolitan centre. They consistently bring leading Irish and contemporary visual artists to the city, and work with young local artists in the Void School. The gallery is, crucially, artist led which informs the whole ethos of the space.

What I'm now hearing is that the Void and Context galleries curators are keen to share the curatorial vision for Turner in 2013.

These are genuinely exciting times and if the legacy part of the City of Culture 2013 is to be truly realised, it makes sense to allow these young Derry based curators to take the lead and work with the Tate Turner team to showcase the city and its visual arts to the wider world.

Julia Donaldson brings the Gruffalo to Derry

Marie-Louise Muir | 17:04 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

I have just interviewed one of my all time favourite writers, Julia Donaldson, creator of The Gruffalo and a host of other characters. Normally I do a bit of googling/reading/researching before I chat to someone. But this time, I feel I know her and her writing inside out. I've been reading her words to my children for the past 7 years. From her debut picture book "A Squash and a Squeeze" to the runaway success of "The Gruffalo", her words are a joy to read. You know that feeling of dread when your child chooses a book you hate, and you think, how can I read this? No, a Julia Donaldson night is a good night.. There's something innate in her writing, a mix of mischief and music that makes you sound great when you're reading it! Move over Jackanory, there's a new reader in town! Direct from the girls' bedroom!

Anyhow, Julia is coming to Derry on the 21st January for a day of events, an exhibition called The Illustrators in Central Library; an interactive reading/singing show in the Millennium Forum; and a chat with myself and Siobhan Parkinson Laureate na nÓg (Irish Laureate) at the Verbal Arts Centre.

She's a bit hard of hearing, she tells me, and her work, in recent years, has become informed by hearing loss, and how this affects young readers. She's written a story about a deaf fairy, which she will be reading from. But the big draw will be The Gruffalo. She loved the BBC adaptation, she tells me, but loved The Gruffalo's Child recent one even better. They got the snow the right kind of crunchy she says!!

For someone who started off as a song writer for children's tv shows, she has transformed the world of children's literature. But song writing for her was a bit like being a hack, asked to write to a brief. She remembers a song she wrote about the Ulster Museum. The show was coming to Belfast and so she was sent a series of postcards - a stuffed polar bear, a vintage car. She called it The Amazement Arcade. She says she's still really proud of it as a title. I looked it up and it seems it was on BBC's Play Away in the mid 1970's. That means I must have sung along to it with Brian Cant. Now I'm getting all nostalgic for Hamble and through the round window. I think that I might be looking forward to meeting Julia more than the children!

Julia Donaldson is in Derry on Saturday 21st January, 1pm show at the Millennium Forum, then at 430pm Two Laureates: Julia Donaldson & Siobhan Parkinson in Conversation with Marie-Louise Muir at the Verbal Arts Centre

Shame, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender

Marie-Louise Muir | 19:16 UK time, Sunday, 8 January 2012

When I met Steve McQueen in a Belfast hotel 3 years ago, I brought my kids. He ended up chatting to my older girl about Dora the Explorer, as I'd brought this very lap top I'm typing on now along with a dvd to keep her distracted while I talked to him and the producers of "Hunger". He seemed on edge that day, the UK and Ireland premier of "Hunger" taking place in Belfast that night. He didn't know how the film about the 1981 Hunger Strikes would play in Northern Ireland.
He had put his faith in his own judgement and creative vision. 
A few months later, as the film picked up awards at the IFTAs in Dublin, I spoke to him again. He was wreathed in smiles, the relief palpable. He hadn't just been worried, he had believed that he and the cast would be the target for attack. Even later as the cast partied at the aftershow party I danced beside his rising star Michael Fassbender. You can tell even then that Fassbender was on the way up. As was McQueen. His transition from acclaimed visual artist to respected film director seamless. 
I'm talking to him again this Thursday about his new movie "Shame" . It's another collaboration with Fassbender and another film in which McQueen has decided to keep faith with his own judgement.  It contains a multitude of very graphic sex scenes - something many film makers would shy away from. 
Set in New York, it's got McQueen's "Hunger" signature across it. With very little dialogue and painterly composed visuals, we are introduced to Brandon. He's young, good looking, well dressed, well spoken, holds down a good job and is a sex addict. 
I wondered before I went in if McQueen, after the success of "Hunger", might have sacrificed his artistry for commerciality. He hasn't. One scene in which Fassbender goes for a run through the New York streets to escape his boss and his sister (beautifully played by Carey Mulligan)  using his flat (and bed) for sex, is remarkable for it being filmed as one shot, no edits, cutaways, just the sense of how no matter how fast he runs he can't get away from himself. The scene reminded me of McQueen's bravery as a first time feature film director in allowing the Bobby Sands/Priest dialogue scene in the prison to run for, I think, 17 minutes with no edits.  
"Shame" is a triumph. It takes all the power and beauty of "Hunger" and turns up the volume.
Fassbender's portrayal of sexual addiction is painful to watch. It's uncompromisingly filmed, one sex scene in particular goes on so long that I do find myself hunkering down into my seat willing it to end, but then the camera moves into Fassbender's face, and that close up of both pain and ecstacy captures the suffering at the heart of the film. 
I would say that this film is part of the iconography of suffering, Brandon is a damaged Everyman, almost a St Sebastian figure, his pain equal to his ecstasy, his "petit mort" another step closer to the death of his self. There's a moment of possible redemption on a date with a work colleague, a woman who wants to connect with him, but his dismissal of relationships, his sister and ultimately his own safety, leaves us questioning if he will ever recover. Unsettling, powerful, memorable.
Shame previews at the QFT, Belfast on Tuesday at 7 pm with special live satellite Q&A with director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan. It opens on Friday. certificate 18 

Stephen Rea and the return of Field Day

Marie-Louise Muir | 18:08 UK time, Thursday, 5 January 2012


Stephen Rea is in town. Narrating Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman" with original music by Colin Reid and assembled strings. I haven't seen Stephen in several years. The last time was in his house outside Dublin, doing a television interview with him for BBC NI's now defunct "Festival Nights". I remember he said my top, part of which was crocheted, looked like one of those lace doilies you get on the back of sofas. Thanks fella. He's had a busy year. Two werewolf films, one of which with Kate Beckinsale; a movie with Martin Sheen "Stella Days" and the stunning BBC television drama "The Shadow Line". I mix up the name of his character. He played a sinister hit man called Gatehouse. "I loved you as Postgate," I blurt out. He brushes it off, and enthuses about Hugo Blick, the writer.  He would love to re-visit this character. Well, he was the only one who survived the whole series. I think he deserves his own spin off series! But I'm most interested in his ambition to get a new Field Day Theatre Company play into production for part of the UK City of Culture 2013. It was written into the proposal and seems to be Stephen driving it. While Field Day never went away, Seamus Deane keeping the literature arm going, there is a strong sense of the end of the old guard (Friel, Kilroy etc) and an ushering in of the new. Who does he want to write for him? He won't say. He's talking to people, and wants to get the right play. He's painfully elusive, not wanting to jinx anything, but it is going to be new writing. But adds I will be the first to know as soon as he's decided.






Sam West

Marie-Louise Muir | 16:43 UK time, Thursday, 5 January 2012


Publicity image for Eternal Law



I interviewed the actor Sam West today (that is him on the far right of the photo looking grumpy!) It's his character in a new television drama series which starts tonight called Eternal Law. It is from the creators of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, but instead of time-travelling policemen, sixties and seventies nostalgia and DCI Gene Hunt, this one is about angels sent down from heaven to work as lawyers.

Sam kind of threw me at the start of the interview saying he wanted to be called Samuel first and then Sam afterwards. But instead of that being an antsy actor thing, Samuel/Sam turned out to be one of the nicest guests I have ever had. Chatty, thoughtful, eager to come to Belfast so he could visit the City's Punk Shrines. I did suggest Terri Hooley could be his guide, but then wondered if he would survive such a tour!

Son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Sam comes from acting royalty. His parents are part of my childhood telly watching memories. Sybill in "Fawlty Towers" and that voice "Bas....illll". But it's his dad, Timothy West, who wins hands down. It's an episode of "Tales of the Unexpected". I remember he played a bee-keeper, who eats the jelly and ends up turning into a bee. The image of him at the end, buzzing and sprouting bee like hairs on the backs of his hands, freaked me out.

I tell Sam this. He says he's been told this before. It's called The Royal Jelly episode. A lot of people tell him it gave them nightmares. He says he's going to tell his dad and that he will be chuffed. Afterwards, I google the episode. It went out in March 1980. Still vivid all these years later. Put me off honey for life. *shudder*

"Eternal Law" is on ITV1 tonight at 9pm





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